In the first act of his one-man show, "Save It for the Stage," Charles Nelson Reilly captivates his audience. Effervescently charming, with a sly wit and a sheepish smile to go with it, Reilly spins highly intriguing tales of his odd family and his earliest efforts at showbiz, making everything seem completely of a piece, providing a model example of how to weave various motifs into a memoir for comic and emotional effect. But in the second act, Reilly comes close to holding his audience captive. What had seemed a tightly structured performance becomes a rambling series of tales about his encounters with the famous people who played roles in his life, each discrete story good for a laugh but bringing an ever-diminishing return.

In the first act of his one-man show, “Save It for the Stage,” Charles Nelson Reilly captivates his audience. Effervescently charming, with a sly wit and a sheepish smile to go with it, Reilly spins highly intriguing tales of his odd family and his earliest efforts at showbiz, making everything seem completely of a piece, providing a model example of how to weave various motifs into a memoir for comic and emotional effect. But in the second act, Reilly comes close to holding his audience captive. What had seemed a tightly structured performance becomes a rambling series of tales about his encounters with the famous people who played roles in his life, each discrete story good for a laugh but bringing an ever-diminishing return. By the time he’s done, an epic 2¾ hours after he began, he’s demonstrated impressive stamina for a man approaching 70. But after 50 years in showbiz, he should know better: He needs to leave the audience wanting more, not less.

Fortunately, Reilly never becomes unpleasant company, and part of the problem with the second half is that the first half’s so good. He begins with the fair claim that he’s in the twilight of an extraordinary life: “Extraordinary because of the people who love me; the twilight because of what people tell me in the supermarket,” he says. He then takes us back to his early childhood in the Bronx, introducing us to some memorable characters, always helping us appreciate their qualities by providing the ideal casting for the roles.

Most centrally, there’s his frigidly cruel Swedish Lutheran mother, Signe (“played by Shirley Booth”), who never provided warmth or encouragement but at least gave Reilly some great recurring shtick by screaming racial slurs out of the window. She’s also the one who provided the show’s title, deflecting all of the young Reilly’s inquisitions or observations with the perennial response: “Save it for the stage!” His father — “played by Hume Cronyn” — was a gentle man and a talented painter, but one who drowned his overwhelming regret in alcohol and needed to be hospitalized.

After that, Reilly moved with his mother to Hartford, where her family lived. “I spent my adolescence in an Ingmar Bergman movie,” he quips, and supports his comment with wonderful details about his extended, eccentric Swedish clan. He tells of his first trip as a young boy to the theater, which he immediately knew was his rightful home, and of his friend’s mother who planted the dream that would lead to his acting career. Reilly also tells the very powerful story of witnessing the Hartford circus fire.

He then recounts his early acting studies with Uta Hagen, along with a class filled with future stars, and of his debut performances in summer stock, ending the first act with a cleverly constructed yarn about trying to get to an intermission before a tornado brings down the curtain.

After the break, Reilly talks of his Broadway experiences and how he became a leading man in musicals. But aside from the continuing adventures of his always insulting mother, the second act falls into the trap of name dropping. Some celebrities belong in the piece: Dick Van Dyke, for example, whom Reilly understudied in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and Julie Harris, who helped him expand from acting to directing, and even Burt Reynolds, who made him a teacher. But then there are the stories about Mae West — funny though they may be — and Chita Rivera and Joan Rivers and Abe Burroughs and even Burt Reynolds’ father.

The list goes on, all of them undoubtedly important figures to Reilly, but the show loses its focus in his grateful reminiscences — the stories begin to feel like impersonal dinner conversation. They’re entertaining, but they lack the emotional undercurrent that made the first act more than a series of anecdotes. Noticeably, for example, Reilly never deals with one of the most personal aspect of his life, preferring a knowing “don’t ask, don’t tell” wink to the obvious.

Director Paul Linke, with help from lighting designer Paul Martin Weeks and sound designer Kenneth K. Melvin, does what he can to vary the presentation of the rambling monologue. But by the time Reilly returns to theatricality — engaging in an imaginary conversation with a pelican on the beach — it’s too late to weave another spell, and his final metaphorical flourishes fall flat. In the end, “Save It for the Stage!” is a pleasing, low-key party that goes on an hour too long.

Save It for the Stage!: The Life of Reilly

Hollywood, Falcon Theatre; 99 seats; $30

Production

A Falcon Theatre presentation in association with Michael Alden of a two-act performance by Charles Nelson Reilly. Directed by Paul Linke.

Creative

Lighting, Paul Martin Weeks; costume, Noel Taylor; sound, Kenneth K. Melvin. Opened, reviewed July 12, 2000. Closes Aug. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Charles Nelson Reilly
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